Okutan: Are Stones Worth More than Blood?

A message to those who don't talk about Sri Lanka.

by Ezgi Okutan | 5/2/19 2:16am

Enter Google Trends, then compare Sri Lanka and Notre-Dame over the past 30 days. The data shows that interest in the term “Notre-Dame” reached its peak popularity 24 hours after that cathedral’s fire. The term “Sri Lanka” also peaked 24 hours after the lethal bombings in that country. But that peak was just a third the size of Notre-Dame’s. How should we interpret these results? Should I ask my statistics professor if cultural proximity is a confounding variable in people’s interest and sympathy? 

Back in Turkey, my home country, we have an ancient proverb: The fire only burns the place it falls on. In other words, we only care about tragedies if they’re close to us or if they affect us in some way. Some may say it’s human nature to be uninterested in things that don’t affect us or things that we can’t relate to. But at Dartmouth, an institution whose mission statement espouses “responsible leadership,” a lack of interest in global issues can’t be justified as mere human behavior — certainly not if we are the leaders who are supposed to make a difference. If we fail to talk about Sri Lanka and other global tragedies, we fail to fulfill our responsibilities both as global citizens and as Dartmouth students. 

Believe me, I also felt extremely heartbroken when Notre-Dame was burning, and I had felt a sense of solidarity looking at all the social media posts and talking to people about it. But when terrorists murdered over 200 people in Sri Lanka, I saw just a couple of posts, a stark contrast to the overwhelming public attention Notre-Dame received from my close social media circle. Some of my friends didn’t know what happened, and we didn’t really talk about it. The disparity disturbed me: Is stone more important than blood? 

Don’t get me wrong: I am not trying to undermine Notre-Dame or deny that it should receive massive amounts of public attention. If there is a tragedy, like the Notre-Dame fire, we have to talk about it, and we shouldn’t divert from the issue by listing all the other problems that exist in the world. Notre-Dame received the coverage it should’ve received. My point is a different one: I ask where the same considerate, global-minded people who responded to Notre-Dame were when a massive tragedy happened in a more distant country. 

To be frank, many of us are globally aware only when a tragedy is prominently featured on the news and on our social media. Complacency and a lack of interest in culturally distant tragedies can be an unfortunate trend at Dartmouth — something I feel strongly as an international student. I asked a member of the Class of 2022 from Sri Lanka about the attacks. He asserted that the coverage of Sri Lanka spiked only when the death toll rose sharply. He said that an attack on a Western country would receive the same amount of attention for a far smaller attack. The difference, he said, was that Sri-Lanka wasn’t one of the handful of countries on which the Western media focuses .

Yet I don’t believe that it has to be this way. The protection of the United States’ safe borders, and Dartmouth’s infamous bubble are no justification for a lack of interest, at least not if we claim to be the globally aware citizens that Dartmouth takes pride in producing. If people openly state that they never claimed to be globally aware, that’s a stance and I respect it. However, if they claim that they do care about the wider world, then they have to talk about Sri Lanka at least as much as they talk about Notre-Dame. 

A basic understanding of global affairs goes a long way. It carries practical utility in fields like public policy, international relations, economics, business and many others. But it also lets us put things in perspective and value human lives and human rights, regardless of geography. Sri Lanka might seem farther away than Notre-Dame, but it deserves at least as much attention.

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